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No. 1, with a bulletAztecs' hard-throwing Stephen Strasburg, once considered too 'soft,' is now the consensus choice to be the top pick in June's major league draftBy Don NorcrossUNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERFebruary 19, 2009Barely 10 minutes into his first conditioning workout at San Diego State, then-freshman Stephen Strasburg was sprawled in the ice plant, throwing up. The workout was still in its warm-up phase.Demonstrating that a catcher always supports his ace, Aztecs catcher Matt Parker said, “It was a pretty tough warm-up.”Strasburg was hardly the picture of fitness at the time. At 6 feet, 3½ inches, he weighed 249 pounds. His cheeks were pink, his stomach flabby.Dave Ohton, the Aztecs strength coach, saddled him with a nickname.Slothburg.Two and a half years later, Strasburg stands 6-4¼. He weighs 225 pounds. His waist is so slender in contrast to his broad shoulders that if this pitching gig doesn't pan out he might try modeling.His fastball has jumped from 90 mph as a senior at West Hills High to 101 mph. He struck out 23 in one game last April. He keeps a bronze medal stashed inside a safe at his mother's home, courtesy of being the only collegian selected to the U.S. Olympic team last summer.Barring injury, Strasburg, 20, is expected to be taken first overall in the June amateur draft by the Washington Nationals. Having retained Scott Boras as his adviser, the Aztecs junior right-hander might become the second amateur to command a $10 million contract.Watching Strasburg pitch in an SDSU scrimmage last month before official practice commenced, scouts huddled behind home plate at Tony Gwynn Stadium could barely contain themselves.“You gotta put a cocoon around him.”“The best amateur I've ever seen.”“Pretty amazing, isn't he?”Amazing, yes. Amazing that a guy who was not drafted out of high school, a guy whose toughness was questioned, who was told he should consider quitting SDSU's program as a freshman, is now the most talked about amateur pitcher in years. The rap against Strasburg at West Hills was that he was soft. Soft physically. Soft mentally.“We always felt if we hung in there with him, we were going to get him,” said El Capitan High coach Steve Vickery. “To be honest with you, most times we did. It might be a bad call by an umpire, a teammate booted a ball. Then he'd lay one over the plate, give up the big hit and we'd score several runs. He just got frustrated and distracted easily.”Strasburg, though, had an advocate in SDSU pitching coach Rusty Filter.“Rusty's the one who felt like he had a high ceiling,” Aztecs head coach Tony Gwynn said. “I was kind of skeptical when I saw him pitch in high school. . . . I didn't quite see the same thing (Filter) saw.”Said Filter: “He was a big guy with a good breaking ball, good command, threw a lot of strikes. I thought he would help right away.”First, Strasburg had to make it through the fall 2006 conditioning, which was not a pretty sight. He threw up early and often. Teammates had to hold him up after some running drills.After about five weeks, Strasburg finally completed a workout, although he failed to meet time deadlines on some runs.“I really appreciate you staying on me and pushing me,” Strasburg told Ohton at the end of the session.“No problem,” Ohton said. “That's what I'm supposed to do.”“I think it's helped me,” Strasburg added.Rather than compliment Strasburg on his perseverance, Ohton said: “You know what I think? I think you should quit.”Ohton was serious.“Very rarely have I had an athlete, in all the different sports, not be able to complete a workout after a month,” said Ohton, who's in his 24th season at SDSU.“When he said that, maybe he was right,” said Strasburg, reflecting on his reaction to Ohton's statement. “But when I really thought about it, when I thought about what I wanted in life, what I wanted to achieve baseball-wise, I wasn't quitting.“I knew I needed to face reality. If I was going to be successful at this level, I had to really get in shape.”Besides, that “soft” label kept rattling around his brain.“It (ticked) me off, a lot of people judging me, whether it was scouts or opposing teams,” Strasburg said. “It fuels a fire.”Turns out the numbers on the scale created an inverse relationship with the numbers on the radar gun. As one decreased, the other rocketed. Ninety mph morphed into 94 mph as a freshman. The Aztecs' closer that season, Strasburg saved seven games, striking out 47 in 37 innings. Opponents' batting average: .141.Then came his sophomore season, the fastball touching 101 mph, the 23 strikeouts against Utah, 133 K's in 97 1/3 innings, a trip to Beijing.In an effort to find out what it's like facing Strasburg, a call was placed to the University of Utah. But on this occasion, Utes coach Bill Kinneberg wouldn't let his players meet the media.“We gave him enough publicity that night,” Kinneberg said.“The ball just comes out of his hand, and the next thing you know it's on you,” said USD third baseman Victor Sanchez, who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts last year against Strasburg. “You have no time to think about it. He's the real deal.”Strasburg sits on a leather couch inside the alumni lounge at Tony Gwynn Stadium after practice, his baseball cap pulled down over his near-buzz haircut. Framed jerseys of former Aztecs who made it to the majors line the walls – Tony and Chris Gwynn, Mark Grace, Graig Nettles, Bud Black, the late Dave Smith, Bobby Meacham.Strasburg's hands are dirty, courtesy of yard work, having just yanked crab grass from the infield.Strasburg is popular among his teammates because while he's months away from becoming a multimillionaire, he's still one of the guys. He lives with two teammates and two others who played baseball at SDSU.“He won't talk about the draft unless someone asks him,” said third baseman Erik Castro, one of Strasburg's roommates. “He's focused on the team.”Said Strasburg: “I owe everything I've done so far to the program. To the coaches, to my teammates. Without them, I wouldn't have been given the opportunities I've been given.”Ask Strasburg about his 2009 goals, and wins, strikeouts, ERA or signing bonus don't enter the conversation.“Get to the regional,” he said.There will be much celebrating at Montezuma Mesa if that comes to pass. The Aztecs baseball team hasn't advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1991.“That does bother me,” Strasburg said.He hasn't taken out an insurance policy to protect himself financially in case of injury.“If God wants me to play baseball, it's going to happen,” he said. “If not, there's another path he wants me to follow.”He's not consumed by the prospect of being the first player taken in the draft.“My goal isn't to be the No. 1 pick,” he said. “My goal's to have a long, successful career in the major leagues.”Padres General Manager Kevin Towers has not seen Strasburg pitch in person. He has seen him on video.Asked his impressions, Towers said, “More than likely, a front-end-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues, and probably in a hurry. He possesses an incredible fastball. He has great size. The kind of guy who could dominate a lineup.”Towers said Strasburg has “excellent” command of his fastball, meaning he throws it for strikes throughout the strike zone.A Phillies scout who requested anonymity describes Strasburg's motion as “nice and easy.”About Strasburg's slider, the scout said, “It's got a good hard break on it. He's definitely a two-pitch pitcher.”Towers said it's “doubtful” Strasburg will last to the No. 3 pick, where the Padres will be selecting.“I find it hard to believe Washington and Seattle will pass on him,” Towers said. From the rumblings coming out of the nation's capital, Towers could have stopped at the Nationals. At baseball's general manager meetings in November in Dana Point, Nationals GM Jim Bowden said of Strasburg, “(He) looks like a National.”In the Washington Post, Bowden called Strasburg “as good a pitcher as we've seen in the draft in 10 or 15 years.”Strasburg isn't all brawn on the hill. His senior year at West Hills, he was a member of the Union-Tribune's All-Academic team with a 4.37 grade-point average. He said he transferred nearly 30 units to San Diego State based on advanced placement classes. He's on pace to graduate in 3½ years.Baseball, though, is his passion. Five days into college he moved out of his dorm because the partying kept him from getting eight hours' sleep before morning practice.As you would suspect from someone with a fastball that has reached triple digits on the radar gun, he loves the strikeout.“It's mano-a-mano,” he said. “You got your guns blazing, they've got their guns blazing. It's the satisfaction of overpowering them.”“If there's a knock on him,” Gwynn said, “I think it's that sometimes he's actually surprised when he gets hit.” For a Saturday 1 p.m. home game, Gwynn arrives at the ballpark around 8, followed closely by Strasburg. After usually pitching Friday night, Strasburg arrives early to lift weights.“He's the hardest worker I've got on my club,” Gwynn said.His freshman year, after finally finishing the running portion of conditioning, Strasburg tried lifting weights.He couldn't bench press 135 pounds. Now he presses it 21 times.His vertical leap was 24 inches then. Now it's 33.He leg pressed 550 pounds as a freshman.“I've got (women) volleyball players who press 700 pounds,” Ohton said.Now Strasburg leg presses 1,200 pounds.“I don't know where he got the perseverance, but it's inside him,” Ohton said. “You don't teach that. You either survive and conquer or you're going to die.”For Strasburg, the memory of that insulting four-letter word drives him.Soft. He was labeled soft.Back inside the Aztecs alumni lounge, Strasburg is tossing a baseball with his right hand. He catches it, stops and says, “I'll always have some inner demons there. I've learned to embrace that.”“Hey, there's nothing wrong with trying to shove it in guys' faces,” Gwynn said. “That makes his story even better for me. You didn't think I could. Now, here I am. What do you think now?”
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